Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Topo Athletic MT-3 Review

Article by Dom Layfield and Jeff Valliere

Topo Athletic MT-3 ($110)
Dom: The MT-3’s predecessor, the MT-2 (RTR review), has long been a favorite shoe of mine, one that I’ve used extensively both in training and for races.  It is built on an “anatomical” last that matches the shape of my foot, has excellent ground feel, and just enough protection for everyday trail running.   To my mind, the biggest problem facing the MT-3 is that there really wasn’t much wrong with the MT-2.
Dom: The MT-3 keeps the same shape and feel as the MT-2.  The upper is slightly more substantial, and the outsole lugs have an additional 2 mm more prominence.   On the foot, the MT-3 and its predecessor feel very similar.

  • Soft, flexible, neutral shoe.
  • Shaped like a real foot.
  • Excellent ground feel.
  • Enough protection for daily running for most runners on most trails.
  • Low platform and firm sole stack provides great stability.
  • Versatile.
  • Weight has increased by 10%, making this more a training shoe than race shoe.
  • Not as breathable as MT-2
  • Toebox slightly more restrictive than MT-2

Tester Profiles
Dom 47, trains and competes mainly on trails in Southern California running about 3000 miles and 500k ft of vert per year.  In 2017 he was 14th at Western States 100 and in 2018 finished 50th at UTMB and 32nd at the 2018 Los Angeles marathon in a time of 2:46.  
Jeff  runs mostly on very steep technical terrain above Boulder often challenging well known local FKT's. 

Official Weight: men's 9.9 oz / 281 g (US9)  / women's 8 oz / 227g (US8)
  Samples:  US M10 10.1 oz (287 g)
Stack Height:   25 / 22 mm (3mm drop)
Available now including Running Warehouse here

First Impressions and Fit
Dom:  The MT-3 is a flexible, neutral, moderately-cushioned trail shoe.  It has a low heel-to-toe drop (nominally 3 mm) and is built on the same anatomic last as other Topo shoes, with a medium wide forefoot and snug midfoot and heel.

My sample pair fit true-to-size, although I could feel my toes brushing the end of the toebox.  Since I often run in Topo shoes, the MT-3’s felt immediately familiar and very comfortable. I was barely aware that I was testing a new pair of shoes.

Due to the low total stack height (22 mm in forefoot) and relatively firm underfoot feel (at least compared to the squishy, maximalist Hokas that I’ve recently been wearing) stability is excellent and ground feel similarly good.   Unless I’m grinding out very high mileage, I typically like my shoes light and flexible. The MT-3 is right in the Goldilocks zone for me: with enough cushioning to be comfortable, and enough protection not have to dance around being super-attentive to foot placement.  The unobtrusive low drop encourages, rather than dictates, a midfoot or forefoot strike, while also providing enough heel cushioning to comfortably land on your heel.

Jeff:  Having just reviewed the MTN Racer, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons, especially since I had not run in the MT-2.  Immediately I noticed this was a lower, lighter, more flexible shoe, with a more mesh like upper than the MTN and thus with improved ventilation.  At first I was a bit thrown off by the fit which while wider than most shoes, I appreciate the extra room, though my toes were touching the very front.  I was unsure how the MT 3 would work for me based on my initial impressions, but as soon as I ran in them, I never had any issues or even noticed my toes touching the front.
Old and new: MT-3 above, MT-2 below
Dom: The MT-3’s upper is clean and functional, without superfluous cosmetic elements.  The front half is a ripstop mesh with a smooth liner fabric. The toe bumper is substantial enough to provide moderate protection (and to elevate the upper fabric) without adding too much weight or stiffness.   A limited rand wraps around the forefoot, stopping just behind the toe crease to permit two drainage ports on either side of the midfoot.  
Close-up of drainage gill
All very sensible, although I’m dubious of the need for explicit drainage openings.  

A couple of angled overlays reinforce the lace collar, connecting it to the heel counter and the rand.  The heel area is covered with a different fabric, a coarser mesh.  
The heel collar is surprisingly well-padded and with a stiffer heel counter than in the MT-2.  The tongue is also decently padded, and fully gusseted.

On the foot, the forefoot of the MT-3 feels a little more restrictive than the MT-2, which had more stretch.  I am tepid on this change, as I prefer the roomier feel of the MT-2 forefoot. However, it does mean that the MT-3 is slightly more secure on steep descents and aggressive cornering.

I noticed also that the MT-3 upper is less breathable than the MT-2, owing to a much denser weave and multi-layer construction.  But this has the advantage of admitting a lot less dust into the shoe. I’m guessing that the smoother surface will also shed mud and snow better.

Dom:  One of the few flaws of the MT-2 was a footbed that lost volume and became packed out to wafer-thin thickness at pressure points underfoot. 
The MT-3 fixes this with a very pretty Ortholite footbed.  In my experience, this brand is outstanding in terms of cushioning and longevity.  The downside, however, is that the foam absorbs water, so you’ll experience a good amount of “squishing” for a few minutes after a water crossing.
Despite the drainage ports, the MT-3 was not particularly quick (or slow) to dry after water crossings.

Jeff:  Reviewing MT-3 just after I tested the Topo MTN Racer (RTR Review), the upper of the MT-3 feels lighter, more flexible and slightly better ventilated.  While still not the most airy mesh, the upper of the MT-3 provides a reasonable balance of breathabilty and protection, keeping out dust and small amounts of moisture from dew, minor splashing or conservative snow use (though I have not yet had that opportunity given the season).

The padding around the heel is quite ample and comfortable, though perhaps a bit excessive.  The gusseted tongue is quite comfortable and well padded as well.

The overlays are well placed and integrate nicely with the lacing to provide a secure and comfortable midfoot hold without any pressure points.

The forefoot, as expected for Topo, is roomy without being excessive.  Though the MT-3 fits my foot reasonably well and the shoe length concerns evaporated after first try on, I do find some movement when running steep downhills and when cornering fast. 


Dom: With their heavier shoes (like the Ultraventure RTR Review and MTN Racer, I’ve previously complained that Topo’s midsole material seems to result in a somewhat dead-feeling shoe.  For whatever reason, I had no such complaint with the MT-3. Perhaps because this is a lighter, more flexible shoe with a lower stack, the neutral feel of the midsole seemed just right.
Heel of MT-3 is very slightly wider than MT-2, with interesting asymmetry.
Jeff:  Though the midsole is confirmed by TOPO to be the same as the MTN Racer, I find it to be more lively and responsive.  Much of this is most likely for the same reasons Dom lists above. I find cushioning to be moderately firm and supportive, while providing a nice balance of ground feel, flexibility and protection.

Dom: After experiencing the excellent wet traction of the Vibram Megagrip rubber used in Topo’s MTN Racer (and Hoka Speedgoat among others), I was initially disappointed to see that Topo had not employed this same outsole material in the MT-3.   However, after doing a side-by-side test, and sliding around on wet rock, I had to admit that the wet grip of the MT-3 was also very good. I’d maybe give the nod to the MTN Racer by a hair, but the difference is slight enough that other factors like lug size and pattern may be responsible for any perceived difference.
On all the surfaces I could find, the MT-3 traction was excellent.  I didn’t experience any unexpected slips and the shoe felt sure-footed and gave me plenty of confidence to push the pace.  Admittedly, I didn’t get a chance to test on muddy trails, nor in the snow, but I have tons of experience wearing the MT-2 (which has a similar tread pattern with shallower lugs) and found it worked well across the board, so I would be surprised if the MT-3 had any notable failings in regard to grip.
MT-2 sole on left; MT-3 on right
On pavement too, the MT-3 is well-mannered, and makes a capable go-anywhere road-to-trail shoe.

Jeff:  Dom sums it up perfectly above and I found traction to be very good under most conditions and circumstances, though I have not tested in mud or snow.  I have taken the MT-3 on some pretty rough, loose and steep off trail excursions and they gripped surprisingly well on all but the most loose surfaces.  Durability thus far is looking very good with hardly any signs of wear after 40 or so miles.

Editor's Note: As the rubber in the outsole was not specified we asked Topo founder Tony Post about it Below is his response:
"It uses our ‘house’ rubber.  It’s actually the same rubber we use on quite a few of our road shoes.  While I won’t tell you the chemical formulation or ALL the ingredients, I can tell you what we are trying to achieve:

  • Natural feel – consistent with our mission of ‘natural running’ we formulate the compound for a good feel (not ‘boardy’ or ‘shielding’ feel like some rubber soles, but also not overly soft).  This is more than just the hardness of the rubber; it’s how you formulate and mix the compound.  We also consider both the rubber skin and what’s below the skin once the rubber begins to abrade.  We may give up a little abrasion resistance, but since the lug height and lug spacing are good folks don’t usually complain about not getting enough miles on the sole.
  • Flex – this means not just sole flex, but a little give in the lugs themselves which softens the ride and enhances that natural feel in a trail shoe.  Honestly, some of this is designed into the lug geometry, so it’s a combination of compound and design.
  • We try to focus on a nice ‘wear-in’ feeling.  I actually think our soles perform best after 25-50 miles when the skin is worn off and the lug surfaces and base rubber is exposed on contact. You’ve probably experienced this yourself – it’s a balance between feel and abrasion resistance.
  • Lastly, consistency – we put good testing protocols in place with our team in Asia to ensure you get the same feeling every time no matter the factory or supplier.  This can be tricky to enforce so we put our own people in the sole factory to check during production, then it’s checked again after sole assembly at the factory.

You have to remember – soles are part of my heritage too, I had great mentors and teachers during my 11 years at Vibram."

Dom: I generally like lightweight, flexible shoes, and the MT-2 was one of my all-time favorites.  Happily, the MT-3 follows the same philosophy, and the ride is very similar: I went for several runs wearing the two different shoes, and could barely distinguish them. 

The MT-3 strikes what for me is a Goldilocks balance: it rides fairly low to the ground, and the sole stack is firm enough that stability is impeccable.  At the same time, there’s enough squish in the midsole for the ride to be comfortable and forgiving. Ground feel is excellent: not as good as the MT-2, but with a little more protection from rock strikes.

I have worn the MT-2 in many races, and found that my feet started to feel a little beaten up at the end of distances in excess of 50 miles.  I assume that the extra 2 mm of outsole thickness in the MT-3 might be enough to make 100 km comfortable.  Note that there is no rock plate in either version.

Jeff:  Though I cannot compare to the MT-2, Dom’s observation that the MT-3 provides a great balance between excellent ground feel, stability and protective, forgiving cushion is spot on.  

Conclusions and Recommendations
Dom: I have long enjoyed the Topo MT-2, and I was glad to see that (though Topo changed almost everything) the MT-3 retains the same character as its predecessor.  The MT-3 is very versatile and does just about everything well. It feels light and flexible, and lets your own feet get on with the business of running. It has about the right amount of cushion, has a nice anatomical foot shape, and a low -- but not zero -- heel-to-toe drop.   This is a shoe that most runners running on most trails will enjoy.

That said, the MT-3 is not perfect.  I’m not convinced that the changes from its excellent (and widely overlooked) predecessor are all for the better.  For example, I prefer the stretchier forefoot and more breathable upper of the MT-2. On the other hand, I appreciate the increased underfoot protection of the MT-3.  But along with these changes comes a significant increase in weight. The class-leading weight of the MT-2 meant that I often used it for racing. The 10% weight gain of the MT-3 puts it squarely among a slew of other trail shoes and crucially tips the balance so that while I consider the MT-3 to be an excellent daily training shoe, it is no longer an obvious choice for races.
Dom’s Score: 9/10
Excellent in almost every way except that updated shoe is now in the same weight class as myriad other choices.

Jeff:  I find the MT-3 to be a great mid distance daily trainer for a wide variety of surfaces and conditions.  While more responsive and agile feeling than the MTN Racer, I personally would not race in this shoe, though it would likely work well for those with a more relaxed pace and looking for all around reliability and added room in the forefoot.  The tread is versatile enough to make the MT-3 a great door to trail shoe as well.
Jeff’s Score: 8.2  /10
Ride: 8.5 (30%) Fit: 7.5 (30%) Value: 9 (10%)  Style 8 (5%) Traction: 8.5 (15%) Rock Protection: 8.5 (10%)

Comparisons Index to all RTR reviews: HERE

Topo Athletic MT-2 (RTR Review)
Dom:  I discuss the differences extensively in the main review above.  But to summarize, the overall character of the shoe remains unchanged.  Running with the MT-2 on one foot and the MT-3 on the other, the difference was barely perceptible.  I appreciated that the thicker outsole of the MT-3 provided a little more rock protection. The MT-3’s upper is slightly less stretchy, and the forefoot feels a little more restrictive.  The most disappointing aspect of the update, however, is that the weight of the shoe has increased by 10%, which puts the MT-3 at the same weight as a multitude of other trail shoes.

Nike Terra Kiger 5  (RTR Review)
Dom:  Exact same weight as Topo MT-3, and similar concept: light, flexible, low drop, and striking a nice balance between cushioning, protection, and ground feel.  Stack heights are also almost identical (TK5 is 27/23 mm vs 25/22), and when testing side-by-side, the height difference is negligible. The TK5 heel collar is snugger.  Both have a roomy forefoot, but MT-3 has more toe height. I found the stiff heel and bizarre aerodynamic tail sprouting out the back of the TK5 to be its undoing, but found no such flaws in the MT-3.  Consequently I give the nod to the Topo.

Jeff:  I don’t find the Kiger 5 to particularly similar to the MT-3 and would not consider one if considering the other.  I reviewed a size 9.5 in the Kiger 5 and 10 in the MT-3, but found the fit and performance of each shoe to be very different.  Though both shoes are relatively roomy in the forefoot, I found the MT-3 to be more so and less secure. I do see the similarities in concept and the points Dom highlights above, but find the Kiger 5 to be much more responsive, quicker feeling, more secure and more agile.  The Topo probably has overall better traction, though I never really had any issues with the Kiger 5 (though the lack of tread underfoot can be a bit of a limitation in loose technical terrain).

Topo MTN Racer  (RTR Review)
Dom:  Only 5g per shoe heavier, but with a higher stack (30/25 mm) than MT-3 (25/22 mm).   The MTN Racer is high enough off the ground that stability is compromised slightly compared to the sure-footed MT-3.  But the additional cushioning and protection is useful for long efforts, and you get a lot more shoe for only 5 g (0.18 oz) per shoe extra weight.

Jeff:  The MT-3 feels lighter, more responsive and more agile than the MTN Racer, a bit more breathable too, but I find the MTN Racer to have a more secure upper and is more protective, and has slightly better traction.

Hoka Torrent  (RTR Review)
Official stack height is 26/21 mm, so very similar to MT-3 (25/22 mm).  Torrent is slightly lighter (279 vs 287 g).

Dom:  Both excellent shoes.  The shape of the Topo MT-3 is a better match for my feet. The MT-3 forefoot provides a little more rock protection than Torrent, although there’s not much in it.  To my mind the heel of the Torrent felt a little overbuilt compared to the forefoot, whereas the MT-3 seems more balanced. This is a matter of taste. Torrent outsole is probably better in the mud.

Jeff:  The Torrent feels much more responsive and agile, though the upper could be more dialed.  I never really an issue with the Torrent upper, where conversely, the MT-3 does not hold my foot securely in technical terrain.  Traction is comparable overall, though as Dom mentions, the Torrent is a little better in snow and mud given the tread pattern/spacing.

Salomon Sense Ride 2 (RTR Review)
Jeff:  The Sense Ride 2 has a far superior fitting upper (preference though for my narrow foot and desire for security and control in technical terrain), is lighter, is similarly versatile and has comparable traction.  The MT-3 however is $20 less, so perhaps a better value depending on your foot shape and fit preferences.

Altra Superior 4.0  (RTR Review)
Probably most similar shoe from Altra, with 21 mm flat stack.  Slightly lighter than MT-3, even with Stoneguard inserted (275 g vs 287 g), and much lighter with Stoneguard removed (247 g). 

Dom: Having been somewhat tepid about previous iterations, I really liked the Superior 4.0.  It’s wonderfully flexible, and even with the Stoneguard inserted has a lovely natural barefoot feel.    The MT-3 has a lot of similar strengths: it is also built on a foot-shaped last, has good flexibility, excellent stability, and encourages a natural gait.  The Superior feels more minimalist. The MT-3 may be a more mainstream choice: slightly stiffer, with more conventional construction, a little heel-to-toe drop, and more consistent grip from the outsole.

Jeff:  Dom sums it up perfectly above.  Minor and subjective, but I find the Superior 4.0 to look a bit more modern and stylish.

Read reviewers' full run bios here
The product reviewed was provided at no cost. The opinions herein are the authors'.
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Curt said...

Great review, but what about the comparison to the similarly spec'd Terraventure 2? Same stack height with a different outsole? It's curious to me that Topo would release such similar shoes.

Will said...

Thanks so much for the review. I second Curt's request for a Terra 2 comparison - since the MTN Racer looks like a bust, I'm still looking for something that might be very like the MT-2 with a bit more comfort for mid-Atlantic (rocky) ultras.

I was disappointed. I may have been imagining things, but I actually felt the MT-3 to be a little less stable, but I think that may be about agility lost due to the added weight, not the added stack. I know that they are less breathable - I just don't like ripstop that many are changing to - and they feel chunkier in the upper. The real problem, for me, is that I feel they come up even a little shorter than the MT-2... so much so that I think this is part of why I hurt my second toe (which is longer than my big toe) on a long, hilly, rocky run. I am size 13 so can't size up a half-size.

Too bad. Good news is that I miraculously found a pair of MT-2 in my size online just last week. Few! (Dom, how many miles do you usually get?)

Telemarker said...

@Curt, @Will: I need to go for a run in the Terraventure 2 to refresh my memory. The biggest difference, of course, is that the Terraventure 2 incorporates a rockplate into the midsole. I'm not generally a fan of rockplates, but I recall liking the Terraventure 2. My main criticism was that the shoe was relatively heavy (322 g / 11.4 oz).

I'll update review when I've dug out the Terraventures.

Curt said...

Thanks Dom! Also, how about that Terraultra 260?

Jesse said...

Thanks for the review, I found the shoe disappointing because of the restrictive toebox & warm upper. It says on the Topo website to size up a 1/2 size (which it didn’t when the shoe first dropped FYI) also it’s available in a 12 1/2. Wish they had updated the sole & left the upper alone

Anonymous said...

Has anyone else noticed how the MT-3 has a weird fit? It's like there is extra midsole foam in the medial aspect of the heel (kinda like a mild stability feature) with the forefoot of the shoe transitioning into a really neutral feel, as in the area around the great toe and 2nd toe roll in? It's like the shoe is twisting my foot! I love every aspect of this shoe from ride, to fit, and especially the midsole durometer. After 4 weeks of putting some big miles in this shoe, my right foot would just get really tight, and I've never experienced this in any other shoe in my 25+ yrs of running.

Unknown said...

Any idea when the VJ Maxx review will be coming out?

Sam Winebaum said...

Hi Unknown,
VJ MAXx review should post tomorrow. The traction is amazing!
Sam, Editor